Monday, January 10, 2011

The "I'm Right" Reflex

Have you ever been to the doctor and had her hit your knee with a hammer? You noticed how your leg kicked forward? That was a reflex. It was beyond your control. The doc hits. You kick. Pretty simple.

I was thinking about this the other day as I watched how some people reacted to a few questions or ideas at a meeting.

You see, dear Reader, I have this theory. I think that people, when encountering a new idea, have a similar reflex. I like to think of it as the "I'm right" reflex.

Visualize this, if you will, please. Someone is just standing there when something flies toward them and is about to smack them in the face. They, quite naturally, throw up their arms in defense. Arms bent at the elbows. Hands up around eye height, a few inches away from the face. Palms out. Fingers loosely spread.

You can see it, right? It's a fairly common physical pose in that scenario.

Now imagine an idea coming at you in a similar way.

Can't you just imagine a mental startle similar to that pose?

But why do I mention this?

Well, let's go back to the doctor again. Suppose you had no idea why they were tapping your knee. It seems to me that you have a few simple responses to them doing this. First, you can presume that your body knew what it was doing when it began to, effectively, kick out, and you can follow through on that and kick the doc. Not a great response, but not entirely out of the question. Second, you can be fascinated by the reflex and watch as it subsides. This is what most of us actually do. A third response could be that you can whack them upside the head for having hit your knee. Not a good idea, but still possible. Let's ignore the third one for now, for it doesn't actually have anything to do with the knee and the leg.

I believe that we have a similar reflex to new ideas. We mentally toss our hands up in front of our eyes, so to speak, as if to protect ourselves. This is, in my view, nothing more than a simple reflex, over which we have very little control.

What happens next, however, is entirely up to us.

We can either presume that our body, or mind, knows what we are doing and move forward clenching our metaphorical fists, striking a pose that is antagonistic and ready for battle, sort of like a boxer getting ready to fight. Or we can open our arms, spreading them out in front of us, using the forward momentum to embrace that new idea, kind of like someone getting ready to hug an old friend.

In fact, we can even use this reflex as a tool for learning.

Simply stated, this reflex can be seen, or thought of, as an unconscious "I'm right". And when we feel ourselves having this response, we can recognize it as our reaction to encountering something new. We can actually train ourselves to be on guard for this, and when we feel it to use that momentum to move ourselves into that latter position, that embracing of the new, exploring it to see if it is, perhaps, better than what we already have.

I'm not there yet, as anyone who has consulted with me knows, but I am aware of it. Now if only I can work on closing the gap between having that reflex and responding with that second response.


  1. I just received this comment in my inbox (from my friend Pilar), and I loved it so much, I'm posting it here:

    A couple of thoughts. The knee jerk reaction, or reflex arc, is so rudimentary, it doesn't even go to the brain. The afferent impulse goes to the ganglion and loops back to efferent nerves telling it to move before your brain knows anything has happened. Its the same with pain. You've probably noticed that when you say burn your finger you pull back your hand and the pain comes after you've moved your hand. The pain is a secondary signal coming from your brain. Therefore, there would be no point in trying to retrain yourself to react differently to the stimulous. The cognitive reaction simply cannot out pace the reflex as it has a much longer way to go.

    To apply this to your parallel, doesn't approximate quite so neatly. Yes there is biology to how our brains react to a set stimulus but given that it's a cognitive reaction, it's not really a reflex perse.
    Not everyone reacts this way to a different idea. People who tend to be worriers or obsessive would be more inclined to this "automatic no" reaction. It stems from the cingulate system in the brain. This is the part that allows people to shift attention, see options, cooperate, go with the flow. It controls cognitive flexibility and adaptability. When this part of the brain isn't functioning optimally, people can get stuck in their "no" positions, even if saying yes is clearly in their best interest.

  2. Thank you for that very thought-provoking comment, Pilar.

    Every analogy breaks down at some point, and you have clearly showed where this one does.

    It does not, however, negate the overall idea, which is that we often react without really thinking about it, and that we can, I believe, train ourselves to respond better, over time. If you can come up with a better, or perhaps clearer, analogy, I would love to read it. This is just the best I could come up with.

  3. Here is Pilar's next response:

    Well, just to be clear, I'm not arguing your point. I didn't actually take it as an analogy because we're talking about neurons in both scenarios, right? The two ideas are quite literally the same to a certain extent, its just a matter of where the input ends up and how and what does the interpretting. So, I'll preface this with stating that I am more or less thinking out loud, and trying to figure it out myself. I am vastly interested in how our neurology makes us who we are, and I am quite enjoying trying to figure this out alongside you.

    People do throw up walls when confronted with a new idea or something that doesn't fit with their view. I find myself baffled by this every day and struggle to understand it so that I may better convey myself to people who don't think the same way I do. As you know of me already I'm sure, I tend to be an outside the box thinker. The idea of "thinking outside the box" became a cliche in the 90s and tends to have this hackneyed idealism attached to it as to be something to strive for. Thinking outside the box, however, is something some people are just born with. By the time I reached an age where it was really apparent to me how differently I think from other people, I was already well past the age of the nature vs nurture argument about its development.

    That being said, my mom is also an outside the box thinker. She would not have been able to stiffle my tendencies if she tried, because like me, she simply doesn't think in the inside the box manner and for both of us, its an effort to try to do so. There is however no shortage of people of a more artistic creative temperment that grew up with parents who just couldn't understand them due to their own cognitive inflexibility. Get a hair cut and get a real job, anyone ? Conversely I fully admit that a parent's realism does have its place for kids whose heads are in the clouds and feet aren't touching the ground. The world would be an extremely chaotic place if it were populated only by outside the box thinkers. People who think inside the box keep things running by using the tried & true methods and handling the mundane aspects of life. Where would the rest of us be if it weren't for accountants and similar folk?

    (to be continued)

  4. (part 2)

    It has been said that everyone has some sort of psyhological "-ism" , it's just the number and extent of the quirks that we have that vary. People have been theorizing about the psychology of personality from at minimum, and undoubtedly prior to the time of the ancient Greek philosophers and their "4 temperments" theory.

    So to digress to the original post, what I am trying to figure out here, is how and when the input ends up where. Having multiple variables does complicate a problem (but I've never been satisfied with simplicity anyways). My understanding of neurology is not so in depth as to know exactly what happens when the impulse of information hits the brain and I am not certain if that has even been ascertained by anyone yet. I know that the cingulate gyrus, which allows us to shift attention and imparts cognitive flexibily is what is throwing up the wall, but I don't know what part of the brain it hits first or whether it is the same for all people. I don't even know the extent in which this has been studied. Technology that would allow us to actually see what is happening in the brain as it happens, such as SPECT imaging is still fairly new in its applications. I only know of one doctor that actually used SPECT imaging in diagnosing and treating his patients, Dr. Daniel Amen. I find that it isn't more widely used or studied quite alarming. All this time, people have been prescribed powerful medications for illnesses based entirely off of reported symptoms and behavioral observation, without there being an actual test to show what is going on.

    So what I am questioning here is how the impulse is interpretted by the brain, and frankly this is a hefty enough topic for a lengthy dissertation. When the information arrives at the brain, does it go to a certain area first, or does it arrive in several areas at once? Is it the same for everyone? Do people with a "thinking" preference interpret in their prefrontal cortex first versus those that have a "feeling" preference relying upon their limbic reactions as their first line of interpretation? Or perhaps the impulse arrives at the brain and the signal spreads out to the various areas in the order of their physical location and a person's interpretation is based on which area is functioning (or malfuntioning) most strongly? This last one would be my prefered hypothesis but a hypothesis is just an educated guess.